What Is Stress?

Learning Objectives

  • Describe various definitions of stress, including the difference between stimulus-based and response-based stress and good stress and bad stress

The term stress as it relates to the human condition first emerged in scientific literature in the 1930s, but it did not enter the popular vernacular until the 1970s (Lyon, 2012). Today, we often use the term loosely in describing a variety of unpleasant feeling states; for example, we often say we are stressed out when we feel frustrated, angry, conflicted, overwhelmed, or fatigued. Despite the widespread use of the term, stress is a fairly vague concept that is difficult to define with precision.

Researchers have had a difficult time agreeing on an acceptable definition of stress. Some have conceptualized stress as a demanding or threatening event or situation (e.g., a high-stress job, overcrowding, and long commutes to work). Such conceptualizations are known as stimulus-based definitions because they characterize stress as a stimulus that causes certain reactions. Stimulus-based definitions of stress are problematic, however, because they fail to recognize that people differ in how they view and react to challenging life events and situations. For example, a conscientious student who has studied diligently all semester would likely experience less stress during final exams week than would a less responsible, unprepared student.

Others have conceptualized stress in ways that emphasize the physiological responses that occur when faced with demanding or threatening situations (e.g., increased arousal). These conceptualizations are referred to as response-based definitions because they describe stress as a response to environmental conditions. For example, the endocrinologist Hans Selye, a famous stress researcher, once defined stress as the “response of the body to any demand, whether it is caused by, or results in, pleasant or unpleasant conditions” (Selye, 1976, p. 74). Selye’s definition of stress is response-based in that it conceptualizes stress chiefly in terms of the body’s physiological reaction to any demand that is placed on it. Neither stimulus-based nor response-based definitions provide a complete definition of stress. Many of the physiological reactions that occur when faced with demanding situations (e.g., accelerated heart rate) can also occur in response to things that most people would not consider to be genuinely stressful, such as receiving unanticipated good news: an unexpected promotion or raise.

A useful way to conceptualize stress is to view it as a process whereby an individual perceives and responds to events that he appraises as overwhelming or threatening to his well-being (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984). A critical element of this definition is that it emphasizes the importance of how we appraise—that is, judge—demanding or threatening events (often referred to as stressors); these appraisals, in turn, influence our reactions to such events. Two kinds of appraisals of a stressor are especially important in this regard: primary and secondary appraisals. A primary appraisal involves judgment about the degree of potential harm or threat to well-being that a stressor might entail. A stressor would likely be appraised as a threat if one anticipates that it could lead to some kind of harm, loss, or other negative consequence; conversely, a stressor would likely be appraised as a challenge if one believes that it carries the potential for gain or personal growth. For example, an employee who is promoted to a leadership position would likely perceive the promotion as a much greater threat if she believed the promotion would lead to excessive work demands than if she viewed it as an opportunity to gain new skills and grow professionally. Similarly, a college student on the cusp of graduation may face the change as a threat or a challenge (Figure 1).

A photo shows a smiling person wearing a graduation cap and gown.

Figure 1. Graduating from college and entering the workforce can be viewed as either a threat (loss of financial support) or a challenge (opportunity for independence and growth). (credit: Timothy Zanker)

The perception of a threat triggers a secondary appraisal: judgment of the options available to cope with a stressor, as well as perceptions of how effective such options will be (Lyon, 2012) (Figure 2). As you may recall from what you learned about self-efficacy, an individual’s belief in his ability to complete a task is important (Bandura, 1994). A threat tends to be viewed as less catastrophic if one believes something can be done about it (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984). Imagine that two middle-aged women, Robin and Maria, perform breast self-examinations one morning and each woman notices a lump on the lower region of her left breast. Although both women view the breast lump as a potential threat (primary appraisal), their secondary appraisals differ considerably. In considering the breast lump, some of the thoughts racing through Robin’s mind are, “Oh my God, I could have breast cancer! What if the cancer has spread to the rest of my body and I cannot recover? What if I have to go through chemotherapy? I’ve heard that experience is awful! What if I have to quit my job? My husband and I won’t have enough money to pay the mortgage. Oh, this is just horrible…I can’t deal with it!” On the other hand, Maria thinks, “Hmm, this may not be good. Although most times these things turn out to be benign, I need to have it checked out. If it turns out to be breast cancer, there are doctors who can take care of it because the medical technology today is quite advanced. I’ll have a lot of different options, and I’ll be just fine.” Clearly, Robin and Maria have different outlooks on what might turn out to be a very serious situation: Robin seems to think that little could be done about it, whereas Maria believes that, worst case scenario, a number of options that are likely to be effective would be available. As such, Robin would clearly experience greater stress than would Maria.

A concept map begins with a box titled “Stressor” at the top with an arrow underneath that leads to a box labeled “Primary appraisal: challenge or threat?” Below “Primary appraisal: challenge or threat?” is a line leading to the word “challenge” on the left side and “threat” on the right side. Below the word “challenge” is a box labeled “Potential for gain or growth.” There are no additional lines, arrows, or boxes under “Potential for gain or growth.” Below the word “threat,” there is a box labeled “May lead to harm, loss, or negative consequences.” Underneath the box, there is an arrow leading to another box labeled “Secondary appraisal: potential options and how effective?” The box has a line underneath that leads to the words “effective option” on the left side and “ineffective/no option” on the right side. Below the words “effective option,” there is an arrow leading to a box labeled “Low threat.” Below the words “ineffective/no option,” there is an arrow leading to a box labeled “High threat.”

Figure 2. When encountering a stressor, a person judges its potential threat (primary appraisal) and then determines if effective options are available to manage the situation. Stress is likely to result if a stressor is perceived as extremely threatening or threatening with few or no effective coping options available.

To be sure, some stressors are inherently more stressful than others in that they are more threatening and leave less potential for variation in cognitive appraisals (e.g., objective threats to one’s health or safety). Nevertheless, appraisal will still play a role in augmenting or diminishing our reactions to such events (Everly & Lating, 2002).

If a person appraises an event as harmful and believes that the demands imposed by the event exceed the available resources to manage or adapt to it, the person will subjectively experience a state of stress. In contrast, if one does not appraise the same event as harmful or threatening, she is unlikely to experience stress. According to this definition, environmental events trigger stress reactions by the way they are interpreted and the meanings they are assigned. In short, stress is largely in the eye of the beholder: it’s not so much what happens to you as it is how you respond (Selye, 1976).

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Good Stress?

Although stress carries a negative connotation, at times it may be of some benefit. Stress can motivate us to do things in our best interests, such as study for exams, visit the doctor regularly, exercise, and perform to the best of our ability at work. Indeed, Selye (1974) pointed out that not all stress is harmful. He argued that stress can sometimes be a positive, motivating force that can improve the quality of our lives. This kind of stress, which Selye called eustress (from the Greek eu = “good”), is a good kind of stress associated with positive feelings, optimal health, and performance. A moderate amount of stress can be beneficial in challenging situations. For example, athletes may be motivated and energized by pregame stress, and students may experience similar beneficial stress before a major exam. Indeed, research shows that moderate stress can enhance both immediate and delayed recall of educational material. Male participants in one study who memorized a scientific text passage showed improved memory of the passage immediately after exposure to a mild stressor as well as one day following exposure to the stressor (Hupbach & Fieman, 2012).

Increasing one’s level of stress will cause performance to change in a predictable way. As shown in Figure 3, as stress increases, so do performance and general well-being (eustress); when stress levels reach an optimal level (the highest point of the curve), performance reaches its peak. A person at this stress level is colloquially at the top of his game, meaning he feels fully energized, focused, and can work with minimal effort and maximum efficiency. But when stress exceeds this optimal level, it is no longer a positive force—it becomes excessive and debilitating, or what Selye termed distress (from the Latin dis = “bad”). People who reach this level of stress feel burned out; they are fatigued, exhausted, and their performance begins to decline. If the stress remains excessive, health may begin to erode as well (Everly & Lating, 2002).

A graph features a bell curve that has a line going through the middle labeled “Optimal level.” The curve is labeled “eustress” on the left side and “distress” on the right side. The x-axis is labeled “Stress level” and moves from low to high, and the y-axis is labeled “Performance level” and moves from low to high.” The graph shows that stress levels increase with performance levels and that once stress levels reach optimal level, they move from eustress to distress.

Figure 3. As the stress level increases from low to moderate, so does performance (eustress). At the optimal level (the peak of the curve), performance has reached its peak. If stress exceeds the optimal level, it will reach the distress region, where it will become excessive and debilitating, and performance will decline (Everly & Lating, 2002).

The Prevalence of Stress

Stress is everywhere and, as shown in Figure 4, it has been on the rise over the last several years. Each of us is acquainted with stress—some are more familiar than others. In many ways, stress feels like a load you just can’t carry—a feeling you experience when, for example, you have to drive somewhere in a crippling blizzard, when you wake up late the morning of an important job interview, when you run out of money before the next pay period, and before taking an important exam for which you realize you are not fully prepared.

A pie chart is labeled “Change in Stress Levels Over Past 5 Years” and split into three sections. 44% of respondents said that their stress levels have increased over the past 5 years. 31% of respondents said that their stress levels have “Stayed the same” over the past 5 years. 25% of respondents said that their stress levels have decreased over the past 5 years.

Figure 4. Nearly half of U.S. adults indicated that their stress levels have increased over the last five years (Neelakantan, 2013).

Stress is an experience that evokes a variety of responses, including those that are physiological (e.g., accelerated heart rate, headaches, or gastrointestinal problems), cognitive (e.g., difficulty concentrating or making decisions), and behavioral (e.g., drinking alcohol, smoking, or taking actions directed at eliminating the cause of the stress). Although stress can be positive at times, it can have deleterious health implications, contributing to the onset and progression of a variety of physical illnesses and diseases (Cohen & Herbert, 1996).

The scientific study of how stress and other psychological factors impact health falls within the realm of health psychology, a subfield of psychology devoted to understanding the importance of psychological influences on health, illness, and how people respond when they become ill (Taylor, 1999). Health psychology emerged as a discipline in the 1970s, a time during which there was increasing awareness of the role behavioral and lifestyle factors play in the development of illnesses and diseases (Straub, 2007). In addition to studying the connection between stress and illness, health psychologists investigate issues such as why people make certain lifestyle choices (e.g., smoking or eating unhealthy food despite knowing the potential adverse health implications of such behaviors). Health psychologists also design and investigate the effectiveness of interventions aimed at changing unhealthy behaviors. Perhaps one of the more fundamental tasks of health psychologists is to identify which groups of people are especially at risk for negative health outcomes, based on psychological or behavioral factors. For example, measuring differences in stress levels among demographic groups and how these levels change over time can help identify populations who may have an increased risk for illness or disease.

Figure 5 depicts the results of three national surveys in which several thousand individuals from different demographic groups completed a brief stress questionnaire; the surveys were administered in 1983, 2006, and 2009 (Cohen & Janicki-Deverts, 2012). All three surveys demonstrated higher stress in women than in men. Unemployed individuals reported high levels of stress in all three surveys, as did those with less education and income; retired persons reported the lowest stress levels. However, from 2006 to 2009 the greatest increase in stress levels occurred among men, Whites, people aged 45–64, college graduates, and those with full-time employment. One interpretation of these findings is that concerns surrounding the 2008–2009 economic downturn (e.g., threat of or actual job loss and substantial loss of retirement savings) may have been especially stressful to White, college-educated, employed men with limited time remaining in their working careers.

Graphs a through f show mean stress scores in 1983, 2006, and 2009, and how they have been impacted by different factors. Graph a shows the relationship between mean stress score and sex. The mean stress score for men steadily increased from 12 in 1983 to a little over 14 in 2006 to a little over 15 in 2009. The mean stress score for women increased rapidly from a little under 13 in 1983 to 16 in 2006 and remained the same in 2009. The graph indicates that the mean stress score for women is higher than the mean stress score for men overall. Graph b shows the relationship between mean stress score and age. The mean stress scores for people under 25 years old increased from a little over 14 in 1983 to a little over 18 in 2006, and then decreased to 17 in 2009. The mean stress scores for people 25 to 34 years old increased from a little under 14 in 1983 to 18 in 2006, then decreased to a little over 16 in 2009. The mean stress scores for people 35–44 years old increased from 13 in 1983 to a little under 17 in 2006, then decreased to a little over 16 in 2009. The mean stress scores for people 45–54 years old from a little under 13 in 1983 to 15 in 2006, then increased to a little under 17 in 2009. The mean stress scores for people 55–64 years old steadily increased from 12 in 1983 to a little over 13 in 2006 to a little over 14 in 2009. The mean stress scores for people 65 years old or older decreased from 12 in 1983 to a little under 11 in 2006, then slightly increased to 11 in 2009. Graph c shows the relationship between mean stress score and race. The mean stress scores for White people steadily increased from a little under 13 in 1983 to 15 in 2006 to a little over 15 in 2009. The mean stress scores for Black people increased from a little over 15 in 1983 to a little over 16 in 2006, then slightly decreased to a little over 15 in 2009. The mean stress scores for Hispanic people steadily increased from 14 in 1983 to a little under 16 in 2006 to 17 in 2009. The mean stress score for people classified as “Other” increased from 14 in 1983 to a little over 17 in 2006 where it remained. Graph d shows the relationship between mean stress scores and education. The mean stress scores for those with less than a high school education steadily increased from a little over 14 in 1983 to a little over 17 in 2006 to 19 in 2009. The mean stress scores for those with a high school education increased from 12 in 1983 to a little over 16 in 2006 and remained the same in 2009. The mean stress scores for those with some college education increased from 12 in 1983 to a little over 15 in 2006, then slightly increased to a little under 16 in 2009. The mean stress scores for those with a bachelor’s degree steadily increased from 12 in 1983 to a little over 13 in 2006 to 15 in 2009. The mean stress scores for those with advanced degrees also steadily increased, from a little over 11 in 1983 to 13 in 2006 to a little under 15 in 2009. Graph e shows the relationship between mean stress scores and employment status. The mean stress scores for those with full time employment status steadily increased from a little over 12 in 1983 to 15 in 2006 to 16 in 2009. The mean stress scores for those with part time employment status increased from 14 in 1983 to 16 in 2006, then decreased to 15 in 2009.The mean stress scores for those who were unemployed rapidly increased from a little over 16 in 1983 to 20 in 2006, then decreased back to a little over 16 in 2009. The mean stress scores for those who were retired remained lower than the other groups, remaining at a little under 12 in 1983 and 2006, then slightly increasing to a little over 12 in 2009. Graph f shows the relationship between the mean stress score and income in U.S. dollars. The mean stress scores for those with an income of $25,000 or lower steadily increased from a little over 15 in 1983 to 17 in 2006 to a little under 18 in 2009. The mean stress scores for th<br /><br />ose with an income of $25,001 to $35,000 steadily increased from 14 in 1983 to 16 in 2006 to a little under 17 in 2009. The mean stress scores for those with an income of $35,001–$50,000 steadily increased from a little under 13 in 1983 to a little over 15 in 2006 to a little over 16 in 2009. The mean stress scores for those with an income of $50,001–$75,000 increased rapidly from 12 in 1983 to a little under 15 in 2006, then slightly increased to a little over 15 in 2009. The mean stress scores for those with an income of $75,001 or more steadily increased from 12 in 1983 to a little under 13 in 2006 to a little over 14 in 2009.

Figure 5. The charts above, adapted from Cohen & Janicki-Deverts (2012), depict the mean stress level scores among different demographic groups during the years 1983, 2006, and 2009. Across categories of sex, age, race, education level, employment status, and income, stress levels generally show a marked increase over this quarter-century time span. Visit this text-only page for a screen reader compatible table detailing the approximate data for the Cohen & Janicki-Deverts stress scores.

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Think It Over

  • Think of a time in which you and others you know (family members, friends, and classmates) experienced an event that some viewed as threatening and others viewed as challenging. What were some of the differences in the reactions of those who experienced the event as threatening compared to those who viewed the event as challenging? Why do you think there were differences in how these individuals judged the same event?

Glossary

distress: bad form of stress; usually high in intensity; often leads to exhaustion, fatigue, feeling burned out; associated with erosions in performance and health
eustress: good form of stress; low to moderate in intensity; associated with positive feelings, as well as optimal health and performance
health psychology: subfield of psychology devoted to studying psychological influences on health, illness, and how people respond when they become ill
primary appraisal: judgment about the degree of potential harm or threat to well-being that a stressor might entail
secondary appraisal: judgment of options available to cope with a stressor and their potential effectiveness
stress: process whereby an individual perceives and responds to events that one appraises as overwhelming or threatening to one’s well-being
stressors: environmental events that may be judged as threatening or demanding; stimuli that initiate the stress process

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